I believe, along with many others, that school is suppressing the development of most of the critical human traits we need to acquire in order to survive and thrive going forward. I say this as an educator for the past 15 years who has worked with top private, charter schools, and international schools.
Through my experiences I’ve identified a few key paradigms that I believe schools are getting wrong, as well as the foundational principles and practices that surface when we flip those paradigms on their heads. Here, I will share what those environments look like, and how we can create homeschooling that not only resists the mistakes of school, but that actively develops the skills, habits, and attitudes we all need in a changing world.
I have created several programs around the world which I believe can be models for new learning environments:
- iLead+Design is a standalone two week intensive summer program for high school age students.
- GreenLEAP is a program I ran at Green School in Bali, while I was serving as Director of Entrepreneurial and Enterprise Programmes
- LEAP Academy is a program I piloted at Green School and is currently being developed as a homeschool offering.
There are several common traits of these programs:
- The students take charge of their own learning goals.
- They work with an experienced learner, doer, and collaborator — their coach — to engage with a real problem brought by a ‘client’ we source from the community.
- What they learn emerges based on the needs of the problems they are tackling, versus being prescribed ahead of time.
In the case of LEAP Academy, the program is not just a break from normal school but rather a replacement of it. If the student self-identifies goals related to graduation or university admission, activities can be identified to fit those requirements. But in this program, in contrast to most school experiences, students are in control of their learning.
These programs embody two of the paradigms shifts that are critical in order to serve the current and future needs of our students.
How we teach teaches more than what we teach. When we enforce learning with threats of consequences for not doing what we want, when we want, we are teaching that how to get what you want in this world is by using a power differential. We are implicitly devaluing whatever it is we are trying to get them to learn. Students will internalize these messages and be shaped by them to a greater degree than any content they may remember.
Focus on who the learning is for. If teachers are setting the goals, we are creating a system of external motivation. This limits students' motivation, responsibility, and personal agency. More subtly, if we always tell students what is important to know about something, we are robbing them of the ability to practice evaluating what is important to know. I've written more about this in Learning to Learn.
So how, specifically, can we apply these paradigms to homeschooling?
There are many common principles that underpin how all of these programs are approached. Here are a few that best inform a homeschooling approach:
Start with enlistment. Like with homeschooling itself, the choice to participate has to be understood and made by the student themselves. Suggestions can be made by the learning coach, but ultimately anything engaged with has to be a choice made by the student, based on meaningful internal goals.
Simultaneous group and solo endeavors is purposely designed to allow for development of critical skills, habits, and attitudes associated with each type of endeavor. For younger homeschoolers, mixed age, free play is an ideal group endeavor, since humans have evolved to learn through that experience (see Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn). For older homeschoolers, group endeavors might involve more long-term visioning and broader community engagement. I encourage these projects to engage with a partner in the community that shares similar goals, and to add real value to the world (see my post on Value-based Learning).
Skillful facilitation is key to this process. Helping students mine their experience and interests to find something meaningful to engage in, connecting to community partners, and finding social value are not skills that everyone has automatically. Facilitation requires trust, mutual respect, authentic listening, and the ability to spot entry points for prompting deeper learning and understanding. In my experience, the best way to "level up" as a learning facilitator is to do it whenever possible along with a master. This helps see what is possible and to build comfort with some scary situations, such as not knowing what is coming next but being able to engage with the moment authentically and with trust to allow for what is needed to emerge.
Students in programs that follow these principles report that owning their own learning is more difficult, but that the sense of accomplishment is significantly greater. Teachers report a drastic increase in engagement and in ownership of learning by all types of students, and parents often report considerable changes in the quality and quantity of trust and communication between themselves and their child.
Flipping the Accountability Orthodoxy
Instead of teacher to student, accountability should be between the student and her or himself, with help. We call this “Assisted Accountability” and offer this ‘contract’ as a starting point for that conversation:
- What are your goals—Who do you want to become? What do you want to be able to do? How do you plan to make that happen? How do you think academic studies will fit into that?
- How can I help?
- Can we agree that you are in charge? That you are accountable to yourself?
- Can we agree that I will assist you in being accountable to yourself, that you can use some help in figuring out what goals to set, and how to meet them?
- As part of that agreement, do I have your permission to nudge you from time to time, and to offer to help look at things together when you are not meeting the goals you set for yourself, so that you can either change your approach or change your goals?
Of course, this agreement is less explicit with younger children, and is developed differently depending on the developmental level and maturity of the student. In either case, words must be backed up by actions that support the principles of the agreement. It is not okay to say, “you are your own boss,” but to then start threatening punishment or loss of privileges as incentives.
Do not feel the need to simply let go of your goals for your children. That is permissiveness, and it is almost as bad as authoritarianism. It is okay for you to have goals, and your experience of the world gives you insights that your children cannot be aware of. But you must engage in a way that makes it clear that the ultimate decision about which goals to pursue is up to the student. When done with bi-directional respect, the lessons learned from the negotiation and compromise are just as important as the goals themselves.